Rewind '09: The year in film

Al Alexander

It's no secret that 2009 was a less-than-stellar year for quality films, with much of the blame being heaped upon the writer's strike of 2008. But there were other reasons, specifically a disturbing trend toward even more soulless movies in which gimmicks like 3-D and over-the-top special effects took precedence over story and character.

Even more disturbing is that not just audiences, but a lot of critics, have acquiesced to these lame spectacles.

I'm not just talking obvious junk like "Wolverine" and the "Transformers" sequel, but alleged Oscar contenders like "District 9," "The Blind Side" and the reigning king of the world, "Avatar."

All three of those films left me cold, as did so-called "critic's darlings" like "A Serious Man," "Precious," "The Informant," "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" and especially the incomprehensible "Where the Wild Things Are."

Have our tastes and expectations fallen this far? In the case of the year's highest-grossing comedy (in more ways than one), "The Hangover," the answer was disappointingly, yes.

On the plus side, it was nice to see Sandra Bullock make a comeback, although all three of her films ("The Blind Side," "All About Steve" and "The Proposal") were dreadful. But it could have been worse.

She could have been Sarah Jessica Parker, stuck in not one but two turkeys, "Did You Hear About the Morgans?" and "Spinning Into Butter," that made less money than her salary for next year's "Sex and the City" sequel.

Another pleasant comeback was "Star Trek," cleverly reinvented by J.J. Abrams and stocked with a terrific ensemble of mostly unknown actors who will take the given-up-for-dead franchise well into the 21st century.

Other positive signs were found in the plethora of great animated films, with "Up," "Coraline" and "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" leading the way. Their wit and inventiveness only made pretenders like "9," "Planet 51" and "Astro Boy" look all the more lame.

The past year also saw the emergence of several new faces, with "Star Trek's" Chris Pine, "Up in the Air's" Anna Kendrick, "An Education's" Carey Mulligan and "Inglourious Basterd's" Christoph Waltz delivering four of the 2009's most memorable performances.

It was the old pros, however, like George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges (amazing in the upcoming "Crazy Heart") who most upheld the good name of "movie star," proving that brains and charisma can still take you a long way.

And although the majority of the movies released in 2009 weren't worth the celluloid they were printed on, there were enough good films to make it tough to pick a 10 best. Even now, I'm still struggling to whittle my list down. But as of this moment here are what I consider to be the 10 best flicks and a couple honorable mentions that just missed the cut:

1. “Inglourious Basterds”: How does one do justice to a movie as warped, wacky and way out there as this one? Truth is, you can't. That's how glorious Quentin Tarantino's bastardized version of World War II history became, as the master of pulp fiction led us on a genre-hopping journey rife with wit and surprise. This movie had it all: comedy, romance, action, melodrama, as Q.T. delivered a superior blend of words and pictures. Yet his greatest contribution was his spot-on casting, whether it's big names like Brad Pitt and Mike Myers or a virtual unknown in Christoph Waltz, who flat steals the movie and quite possibly a Best Actor Oscar for his turn as Nazi Col. Hans Landa, aka The Jew Hunter. Some have called Tarantino's revisionism "Jewish revenge porn." I simply call it brilliant.

2. “Up in the Air”: Jason Reitman ("Thank You for Smoking," "Juno") continued his hot streak with this serio-comic delight featuring one of George Clooney's finest performances, playing a business executive out to disprove the "no man is an island" theorem. His Ryan Bingham has no use for human connection, which is perfect for a guy who fires people for a living. But he's forced to rethink that philosophy once Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga come delightfully into his life. Will they soften this stone? A little, but not at all the way you might expect from a big-budget Hollywood movie.

3. “Up”: It is quite simply the best Pixar yet, seamlessly melding stirring emotions and thrilling adventure into a classic tale about letting go of the past and embracing the moment. I've seen dozens of animated films over the years, and not one has matched the depth of feeling Pete Docter's masterpiece elicited in telling the tale of an aged widower fulfilling his beloved wife's dream by tying thousands of helium-filled balloons to his rickety old house and flying it to the tepui mountains of South America. What made "Up" so rousing was its ability to show how the greatest adventures are the ones you take with your heart.

4. “In the Loop”: Armando Iannucci's acerbic comedy blended brilliant satire with biting, blue-tinged dialogue to deliver a knife to the ribs of American and British politicians worried more about putting the proper spin on problems than solving them. James Gandolfini and an Oscar-worthy Peter Cappalti fronted a huge ensemble that compensated for its lack of name recognition with crackling performances that were as venomous as they were droll.

5. “The Hurt Locker”: Unknown Jeremy Renner delivered arguably the year's best performance - as an Army sergeant who so recklessly performs his duty of defusing improvised explosive devices that you'd swear he had a death wish. He was riveting, especially in his scenes with the ill-fated Iraqi boy his Will James befriends. But he had plenty of support from Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty as his exasperated mates on the bomb squad, and especially director Kathryn Bigelow, who delivered a clinic on how to create suspense.

6. “The Messenger”: If "The Hurt Locker" is the best film yet about the Iraq war, Oren Moverman's tale about two psychologically damaged members of the Army's Casualty Notification Service is a close second. Featuring superior performances by Ben Foster and likely Oscar nominee, Woody Harrelson, "The Messenger" succeeded in putting a human face on the brave souls fighting and dying on our behalf, while also presenting a fascinating glimpse into the procedures and protocol involved with knocking on the doors of complete strangers and delivering the grimmest news that person will ever hear.

7. “(500) Days of Summer”: I wasn't bowled over by Marc Webb's quirky love story at first sight, but repeat viewings have won my heart so deeply that I'm ready to proclaim it the best and most original romantic-comedy of the decade. True, the competition was notoriously thin during the past 10 years, but that should not diminish the magic Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt wield in charmingly depicting the 500-day span of a tumultuous love affair. The story daringly jumped back and forth in time, eschewing chronology in favor of an inventive way of depicting the roller-coaster ride that ensues in every romance. Unlike a lot of first-time directors, Webb wasn't afraid to take risks, throwing everything he could think of at the screen, from elaborate song-and-dance fantasies to side-by-side depictions of the subtle differences between expectation and reality. Some of it worked brilliantly, some of it didn't, but you were always eager to see what would happen next.

8. “Food, Inc.”: I've never been one to subscribe to conspiracy theories, but when it comes to processed foods, Robert Kenner's frightening observations on an industry that operates behind a government-sponsored cloak of darkness, made me a believer. Working closely with authors Eric Schlosser ("Fast Food Nation") and Michael Pollan ("The Omnivore's Dilemma") Kenner presented an engrossing array of facts, figures and expert testimony that was as informative as it was frightening. After seeing this eye-opening film, I promise you'll never eat the same way again.

9. “Baader Meinhof Complex”: Not only did director Uli Edel effectively recount the murderous radicalism of Germany's Red Army Faction (aka the Baader-Meinhof Gang) in the 1970s, he also offered an instructive primer on what breeds terrorism, what sustains it and most importantly the establishment's failure to grasp what motivates urban guerrilla warfare. It was all part of a sprawling, ultra-violent epic that mixed heart-stopping action with thought-provoking examinations of leftist political views fueled by fears rooted in Germany's Nazi past. Edel cut right to the heart of that festering mistrust through a series of riveting set pieces that depicted the catalysts of the group's evolution from peaceful protestors to bomb-totting, bank-robbing killers.

10. “Coraline”: Based on Neil Gaiman's story of an 11-year-old girl living parallel lives, Henry Selick took the art of stop-motion animation to an unprecedented level of creativity and ingenuity. Sure, his puppets were molded from silicone and latex, but onscreen they were living, breathing characters with viable souls and emotions. All traits enhanced tenfold by his judicious use of advanced 3-D technology that provided a level of intimacy so palpable there were times you'd swear you could reach right out and touch the characters.

Honorable mention: "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs," "Julie & Julia," "Crazy Heart," "Sugar," "The Cove," "I Love You, Man," "Star Trek," "Drag Me to Hell," "35 Shots of Run," "The Road" and "State of Play."

The Patriot Ledger